Saturday 18 September 2021

Downhill: "New Order"

If we've learnt one thing from the filmography of the Mexican writer-director Michel Franco, it's that his work rarely leads us to a happy ending. The ghastly gutpunch is to the Franco
oeuvre what the twist is to a M. Night Shyamalan thriller or a group hug is to a Chris Columbus joint; if I were planning a Franco retrospective - and, honestly, I've got far more edifying ways of spending my days - I'd probably call it something like Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter. New Order, which won Franco the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Venice festival, signals its status as ordeal cinema simply by reversing all the Es in its opening credits - you know, like that 3dg3lord Gaspar Noé - and then bombarding the viewer with glimpses of the carnage to come: a naked lady being hosed down, hospitals being ransacked, streets either voided or littered with corpses. After this salacious teaser, we're parachuted into a society wedding in an unnamed South American city, and introduced to the handsome, well-to-do couple at its centre - the Ivanka and Jared of a clan who've made their evidently considerable fortune screwing over the workers who show up at the gates in desperate need of financial assistance. You wouldn't have to be a genius to see where this one's going, and sure enough matters barrel downhill from here. Revolutionary upstarts sully the sanctity of this carefully curated event first by putting green dye in the water supply, which could be mistaken for a student prank. Yet absolutely nobody's laughing when this movement's representatives scale the walls of the estate, shoot its owners plain in the head, and begin looting the place and anybody unlucky enough to be found on site. This is just Act One, and what follows prompts a question: when a film is so obviously set up to go in one direction, does it even really need a director?

Let's give Franco this: he gives himself room to develop this vicious social tug-of-war. It's possible the Venice jury's heads were turned by the scope of this uprising. Franco fills entire city centres with bruised, battered or otherwise lifeless bodies, cheekily knocking the O off a flagship Louis Vuitton store in passing; and, having indulged his rebellious instincts, he stages a grim clampdown as the state reasserts itself. There's a lot of murderous movement and a rapidly accelerating bodycount, and yet at no point does Franco address ordeal cinema's chief liability: characters that are indistinguishable from crash test dummies, whom the filmmaker doesn't care about, and who exist solely so as to be bashed around at regular intervals. When a heavily pregnant guest shows up at the reception, you can bet Franco is going to have some diabolical fun with her down the line - and sure enough he does once the revolutionaries discover her cowering in the pantry. But then so would the Manson family, and I wouldn't really want to witness their handiwork, either. This heavyhandedness ensures New Order comes in way down on last year's sly MUBI import The Good Girls, another Mexican depiction of societal collapse, albeit one that had stealth on its side, and which troubled to ensure its characters weren't just straw men. Franco, by contrast, doesn't care about the rich, because they have fancy houses and treat those beneath them with disdain; he scoffs at the revolutionaries, because they go too far and generate the chaos a control-freak creative can only find distasteful; and he's not an especially big fan of the police, either, depicted here as fascists with guns. Which doesn't leave us with much to cling to amid the descent: it's just endless killshots and screams, corpses being torched in neat lines, and ironic use of a military anthem over the closing credits. Franco returned to Venice this year with his latest Sundown, only to be sent home with a near-universal set of one-star reviews. This is the downside of having the blessing and privilege of making a film a year for international exhibition: one-trick ponies get sussed out quicker than ever.

New Order is now streaming via MUBI.

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